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Using NHS Professionals to help trusts with workforce planning

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Ensuring that trusts have the right mix of staff by helping them with workforce planning is a vital service provided by NHS Professionals, says Helen Mooney

NHS Professionals is the largest employer in the NHS, with over 45,000 bank nursing staff on its books. It can also provide NHS organisations with links to agency nurses.

In addition, the special health authority provides a service to trusts designed to enable them to plan their staffing needs more accurately.

In an ideal world, clinical areas in a trust would have a stable workforce made up of both permanent and flexible staff that matched patients’ needs.

However, in practice, the ideal is very often not the reality. Ward managers frequently have to deal with unpredictable workloads and unexpected sickness and absence, as well as new employees coming in and experienced staff moving on.

This is where trusts, managers and nursing staff themselves need a change in mindset. They need to be able to work more flexibly to ensure the right staffing levels can be maintained.

Steve Birnie, Head of Service Improvement at NHSP, suggests that there needs to be a ‘cultural shift’ in the way in which the NHS uses its employees and plans its staffing needs.

‘A lot of trusts suffer from overstaffing in some patches and complete understaffing in others - better workforce planning is of significant importance in patient care,’ he says.

NHSP offers trusts analysis tools and solutions to help them understand their real-time staffing levels compared to patient need as well as predicting their future need. ‘We can forecast future need by ward, by site or by directorate, depending on what the trust wants,’ Mr Birnie explains.

‘We can demonstrate to trusts how they rely on agency staff in different areas and provide a picture of their flexible workforce and how gaps can best be filled.’

He says that the technology used by NHSP enables it to show trusts what their future staffing needs will be by looking at historical trends and overlaying these with changes in need depending on the season. The information is then broken down to predict what they will need in future.

Earlier this year, NHSP published a survey showing a 10% rise in the number of workers on long-term flexible contracts in the NHS. The survey of over 20,000 healthcare staff working flexibly in the NHS showed that 15% of them now work flexibly.

‘Sometimes, matrons who are planning rotas don’t want to allow for flexibility in terms of moving permanent staff to different wards because they feel that when they need more staff they won’t be available. Culturally, there is a challenge in the NHS in moving to more flexible working,’ Mr Birnie says.

However, if trusts predict current and future staffing needs more accurately, they can save money, which can be ploughed back into wards and patient care.

Working with NHSP, trusts can ensure they are not over- or understaffed and that the flexible staff they employ have the right level of expertise by using a specific coding system.

This allows them to tell NHSP exactly what the demand is, down to every specialist nurse required.

‘The clinical coding system is set up so that if a trust needs a theatre practice nurse with scrub experience there is a code for that,’ Mr Birnie explains.

What kind of advice and planning can NHSP provide when an unexpected crisis or emergency occurs?
Mr Birnie says the organisation is well equipped to handle such instances.

‘Normally, what happens is that when a major incident is declared, the immediate demand is met because staff will go to work to help,’ he says.

‘We can provide help and expertise in terms of corralling staff and ensuring that there are staff available for that third shift during an emergency when staff are extremely tired. We can take the organisation out of crisis mode.’

However, he adds a word of caution about the ability to workforce plan during a pandemic.

‘We have plans for pandemics such as influenza to try and ensure that trusts are able to sustain a good-quality service,’ he says.

‘However, in the recovery mode, we do not underestimate the challenge and accept the impact of a pandemic on staff and those that they care for at home.’

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